What Does “Orange County Choppers” Say About Us?

CMT is a sluice that accepts the offal and refuse from other networks and safely conducts it away to a network where no-one might accidentally watch it.  They receive a special grant from the EPA for this service.  It is our cultural Yucca Mountain.


Last weekend, they premiered Orange County Choppers, the oops-baby of the contentless American Chopper.  The premise is the same: an hour-long commercial for a corporate sponsor, interlaced with random yelling while some metal fab happens in the background.  For the premier, that sponsor was Slappy’s Nasty Popcorn, or something like that.  This makes sense to me, because I associate pre-packaged popcorn with unrideable stretch choppers.  Since there was a popcorn theme, naturally the show included lots of throwing cherry bombs in toilets and whatnot.


Remember the first time you saw American Chopper ten years ago?  It was exciting to think there might be a real show about choppers and garage culture.  Remember, this was back when the Discovery Channel had content.  You imagined all the fascinating machines and interesting characters they could explore.  No matter what we ride, we’re all fascinated by cool customs and chopped bikes.  There is so much talent, attitude, and individuality expressed in the work of little garages and home builders around the country.


There is something really quintessentially American about the chopper as a material expression, a defiant, “This is who I am,” with an implied, “motherfucker.”  Some are really beautiful, some ugly, some both.  They may be elegant or grungy, neo or retro, fat or narrow, raked or… super-raked, but they are profoundly individual.


Were we wrong to hope to see some of that in a new show called American Chopper?  Yes.  Wrong and naïve.  Our failure of imagination was to assume that this show would have anything to do with motorcycles, riding, biker culture, or, well, choppers.  We didn’t see yet that of course the show had nothing to do with us and our rides.  It had more to do with I Love Lucy.


Over the course of that decade, many people who have no connection with motorcycle culture watched the show and innocently thought they were getting some insight.  They thought those bikes must be the ultimate bike that all us bikers would kill to have, if only we could.  How many times were you asked about American Chopper by well-meaning friends and family who thought they finally had some connection, some means to have a conversation with you about bikes?  I always just said I never heard of it, and then I would complain about the latest episode.  We just loved to hate it.


So here’s what AC said about us as bikers: nothing.  It’s like asking what Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, said about psychoanalysis.  What’s more chilling is what is said about us as an audience: in order for us to accept even a mildly deviant subculture, it has to be a clownish caricature and a transparent branding opportunity.  Of course, our media have a pretty nasty history dealing with subcultures, and we consumers have an equally ugly history of lapping it up, so this should be no surprise.


Also, the show tells us that the content doesn’t matter.  The motorcycle build process in this show was basically just the three-sided living room of any sit-com.  It’s just where the antics happen, and it is the same antics every week.  Apparently, we love that.  We also love our characters completely predictable and monodimensional.  Senior’s sole character trait is that he blows up a lot.  That’s it, and that’s all we need.


Finally, the show tells us that sponsored content, while nothing new, is now the sole reason for being for much entertainment.  Let’s call this the Apprentice model.  The schlock tide is rising; don’t trying standing on the shore like Canute.


Ultimately, though, even this crass programming model could only last so long.  It played itself out.  Whew.  No need to put another bullet into that psycho-killer – just turn around and walk away.


The new show demonstrates perfectly that there is always another drop of blood to be squeezed out of that ridiculous, aging, mustachioed turnip.  Thanks to the sponsored content model, bald tires like this show can still roll.  Someone will pick it up.  There is no lowest mountain, so to speak.  When it somes to the lowest common denominator, you can divide by zero.  After all, there are people who eat at Pizza Hut.


As we see this unfortunate coda to the decade-long stunt, we might ask how long Orange County Choppers can last.  Does it matter?  There is really only one thing I am genuinely curious about regarding these shows:


What happens to these corporate choppers after the show is over?  There must be hundreds of them out there by now.  They’re certainly not on the roads – that would make no sense at all.  How about a show where guys from different garages around the country take these discarded corporate choppers, strip them down, and make choppers out of them?  Why not?  There’s a perfectly good engine and tranny in there – let’s do something with it!  I would watch that show.

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